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How to Create a Vibrant Day of the Dead Portrait in Adobe Illustrator

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Day of the Dead is very beautiful and inspiring Mexican holiday. We’ll create a female portrait using different methods and techniques for a great result. You can use this tutorial as a reference for your own picture.

If you're interested in buying a graphic, vector, or template (to complement your work on the tutorial), there's a useful collection of Day of the Dead items on GraphicRiver.

1. Make a Sketch

Step 1

At the beginning let's draw a schematic sketch, and we’ll add the details later. We’ll use the attributes inherent to this holiday: we’ll decorate the hairstyle with Mexican marigolds, we’ll use traditional jewelry and ornaments, and we’ll create the Calavera's makeup.

sketch of the portrait

Step 2

Create a New document, 600 x 850 px, RGB. Then File > Place your sketch in Adobe Illustrator. Change the layer name to "sketch". In the Layer Options choose Template, and change Dim Images to 50%.

sketch layer options

2. Create a Brush for the Contour

Step 1

Create a New Layer for the lines. For a convenient work process, we’ll use two types of layers for each group of objects: line and shape.

Step 2

Let’s create a New Art Brush. Make a black ellipse 100 x 2 px using the Ellipse Tool (L) with 100% fill and without stroke. Drag it to the Brushes panel and go to New Brush > New Art Brush. Press OK, and choose the Tints method.

creation of a new art brush

Step 3

Start drawing the contour of the eyes. Draw smooth lines following the sketch. Change the Weight of the stroke to 0.25 pt for the eyelashes and folds of skin under the eyes.

drawing of the eyes contour

Step 4

Select the eye using the Selection Tool (V), and press Control-C and Control-F. Then choose Flip Horizontal on the Transform panel. Drag this reflected eye using the Selection Tool (V), pressing the Shift button.

transform options

Step 5

At this stage, the eyes look crossed. Select and align the iris with the pupil of the eyes using the left-right buttons. Also change the order of the eyelashes and add some folds of skin under the eyes.

editing of the eyes

Step 6

Draw the nose and lips, the line of the face and neck this way. First draw the right part, then flip it horizontally. Don’t draw the eyebrows; they will be hidden by the Calavera's makeup.

drawing of the face

Step 7

Add a New Layer for the flowers. Start drawing the petals from the flower’s middle to the edge. In the end diversify them with the buds and leaves.

drawing of the flowers

Step 8

Next let’s start to design the earrings. Draw two ellipse shapes, and then cut unnecessary pieces using the Scissors Tool (C) and delete them.

earrings design

We’ll draw the shape of the crescent with the holes for the beads this way. Add additional lines for the thickness of the earring.

earrings design

Now draw the beads and attach them to the crescent.

final earring

Select the entire earring, copy and flip it horizontally. Place it in the appropriate position on the right side, and change the beads' positions.

mirrowing of  earring

Step 9

Let’s start forming the hairstyle. Create a New Layer between the “face_line” and “earring_line” layers. For convenience, we’ll change the color of the brush. So we'll distinguish the hair lines and other objects.

Start drawing from the top part bit by bit moving down. First make just the main lines, and then add the details.

hairstyle drawing

Step 10

Here’s how the picture looks now.

picture in lines

3. Create the Main Shapes

Step 1

Now we need to create the swatch of the main colors. Basically we’ll choose bright colors for all shapes and a pale color for the skin.

main swatches

Step 2

Start painting the main shapes following the brush contour. You can use the Pencil Tool (N) or the Pen Tool (P) for your convenience.

Organize the layers as shown in the screenshot below.

layers list

Step 3

Now we need to repaint the contours for each of the objects in the appropriate colors. Choose a darker shade for the lines compared to the main color of the shapes. The exceptions are the flowers and hair. Fill the outer edge of the petals with orange color and the lower lashes with red. Delete the stroke from the pupil of the eye.

filling shapes

Let’s repaint the contours of the hair. Select one of the lines and go to Select > Same > Stroke Color, and then to Object > Expand Appearance.

Open the Pathfinder panel and click Unite, holding the Alt button. Then press Expand.

merging hairlines

Now fill the hair with the linear gradient from navy blue to bordeaux.

And here's what we've got at this stage.

picture in main colors

4. Create the Calavera's Makeup

Step 1

Create a New Layer for the makeup’s contour over the layer “face_line”. Make the following layers with shapes invisible: eyes and lips, face and neck, background.

Choose your Art Brush and change its Weight to 0.75 pt on the Stroke panel. Now start to draw the contour of the makeup following the sketch. During the process we can add additional details. First draw one side of the makeup, and then flip it horizontally for the other side.

makeup in lines

Step 2

Create a New Layer for the makeup’s shapes over the layer “eyes-lips_shape”. Choose the colors and create the main shapes following the brush contour.

Now go to the layer “face_line” and delete the lines of the nose and the middle part of the lips.

Let’s repaint the contours of the makeup. Select the lines and go to Object > Expand Appearance. Fill them with darker shades compared to the main colors of the shapes.

Expand and color the rest of the lines in conformity with the makeup. You can see the final result on the right side of the face in the screenshot.

makeup in main colors

Step 3

Finalize the left side of the makeup.

The main part of the drawing is done. Here is how the image looks now.

coloring makeup lines

5. Add Shadows and Highlights

Step 1

First let’s add some volume to the eyes. Start with the white of the eye, filling it with a light blue tint. Draw some dark blue shapes under the eyelashes and lay them one on top of the other, reducing the Opacity to 10-20%.

Next draw a pink strip on the eyelid margin, and add some shadows and highlights. Add some gloss to the white of the eye too.

voluming white of the eye

Now we get to the iris of the eye. Create two ellipses behind the pupil of the eye, and fill them with brown and orange color. Choose the darker color for the top of the iris and lighter for the underside. Add some bright twinkles.

detailing of the eyes

Let’s add a bright highlight to the black area and red line. Add volume to the eyelashes too.

voluming of the eyelashes

Now copy these new details and flip them horizontally. The exceptions are the iris and the pupil with twinkles—just copy and move them holding the Alt button.

mirroring of the eyes

Step 2

Now we'll get to work on the lips. The upper part of the lips is shaded, so make it darker. Add some shadows and highlights as shown below. Use Opacity to make the surface smoother.

detailing of the lips

Step 3

It’s time to add some volume to the face and neck. We'll draw the blush first. Choose a pink color and add the shapes of the blush to the cheeks and neck. Select them and go to Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur. On the Transparency panel, reduce the Opacity to 40%.

creating the blushes

Step 4

Now add some shadows. Choose the color of the face’s contour, and reduce the Opacity to 15%. We'll draw the basic shapes on the area where shadows usually appear.

adding the face shades

Then we’ll draw the volume following these basic shapes. Lay the shapes one on top of the other till you get the desired result. Change the Opacity of the shapes during the process. Draw the same shadows on the neck too.

adding the face shadows

Choose a darker color and draw the falling shadows, using 14% Opacity.

the falling shades

Step 5

Now add reflections from the background. Select the background blue color, reduce the Opacity to 5%. Draw some shapes on the cheekbones and neck. Add some reflections under the nose too.

adding the reflections of the backgrounds

Then choose a darker blue color and draw falling shadows from the hairs, leaves and earrings. Vary the Opacity from 10% to 30%.

the falling shades on the face

Choose the red-brown color and draw the shadows on the bottom part of the neck.

the shades on the neck

Step 6

Let’s add some highlights to the face. Starting from the base skin color, select the lighter tint, and reduce the Opacity to 20%. Draw the shapes on the forehead, nose and chin, and over the lips too.

the face highlights

Now choose the cyan color and draw highlights on the cheekbones and the corners of the lips. Reduce the Opacity to 20% too.

the reflections on the face

In the end let’s add some bright twinkles to the bottom part of the nose and the area over the lips. To make the skin look more natural, add some light moles.

the twinkles on the face

Here is how it all looks now.

the face interaction

Step 7

It’s time to add some volume to the Calavera's makeup. We'll work on the "makeup_shape" layer. Let’s start from the darkest parts of the makeup. Choose the dark blue color of the contour, and reduce the Opacity to 30%. We'll draw the shapes on the area where shadows usually appear.

detailing of the makeup

Draw the shadows following these base shapes, changing the Opacity during the process.

the shadows of the makeup

Now choose the black color with 30-40% Opacity and draw some falling shadows. Change the contour color of the nostrils to black. 

the falling shadows of the makeup

Step 8

Let’s add some highlights to the lightest area. Choose the blue color from the background, and add shapes with 3% Opacity.

the highlights of the makeup

Now draw some cyan reflections on the inner corners of the eyes and around the nostrils, varying the Opacity from 10% to 20%. Add the bright hotspot on the tip of the nose. Also draw the dark red shape on the area around the nostrils.

the reflections of the makeup

Step 9

We’ll draw the volume of the rest of the makeup using the same principles. You can see the result below.

the final makeup

Step 10

Let’s add some cyan reflections on the iris and the white of the eye. Add a little of them to the lips too.

additional reflections

Create a New Layer over the layer “makeup_line”. Draw the shapes of the highlights on the lightest area. Take an almost white color with 10% Opacity, Blending Mode: Overlay.

using the overlay blending mode

Let’s draw the final touches on the makeup. Add some highlights and shadows to the black pattern on the lips.

the final touch of the makeup

Step 11

Well, let’s draw the flowers. First add the base color, then draw the dark shadows and fallen shadows, highlights and gloss. Use the same principles as shown in the screenshot.

the flowers detalization

Create a New Layer over the layer “flowers_line”. Add some highlights to the petals near the face, and draw the shadows on the outside petals. Use an almost white color for the highlights and dark blue for the shadows. Reduce the Opacity to 10% and change the Blending Mode to Overlay too.

the highlights of the flowers

Step 12

Draw the volume on the leaves and buds in the same way.

the volume of the leaves

We should get this result.

overall view of the flowers

Step 13

It’s time to add some highlights and shadows to the earrings. Let’s start with the golden part of them.

detaling of the earrings

Now add some volume to the beads. Try to draw each of the beads separately, paying attention to the reflections between them. 

coloring of the beads

In the end, add some gloss to the lightest area using the yellow brush.

adding gloss to the earring

Step 14

Let's add some volume to the ribbon of the hairstyle. The method of painting is the same: dark shades, fallen shadows, highlights and gloss.

making ribbon volume

Step 15

Now let’s draw some shadows on the shawl. Make a smooth transition from the red color to the dark, playing around with the Opacity. The darkest shade will be on the bottom of the image. We don’t need highlights there, so just draw some blue reflections from the background.

making shawl volume

Step 16

Finally, it’s time to improve the hairstyle. Don’t draw the volume thoroughly, because most objects are very bright on the image. Just make the hairs neutral.

Let’s draw shapes on the lightest area, then select them and press Unite on the Pathfinder panel. Now fill this shape with the linear gradient from the hair contour, and reduce the Opacity to 40%. Repeat this process, drawing smaller shapes with 60% Opacity.

the hair detalization

Open the layer “hair_back”. Select the main shapes, and press Control-C and Control-F. Fill them with the same linear gradient from the hair contour, and reduce the Opacity to 60%. Also add some black falling shadows from the flowers.

the hairstyle shadows

Let’s draw some blue shapes on the back part of the hairstyle. Choose the background color, reduce the Opacity to 40% and draw the reflections. Then add some cyan shapes with 20% Opacity.

the reflections on the hairs

Draw the blue reflections on the front part of the hairstyle the same way. The brighter color should be on the edges of the image, so reduce the Opacity bit by bit going to the middle. 

overall view of the hairstyle

6. It's Time for the Final Touches

Step 1

Let’s add some necessary details. Start with the background. Choose the dark blue color with 20% Opacity, and lay them one on top of the other around the hairstyle. Then choose a color darker than previous and draw some shapes on the edge of the hair. In the end, use the darkest color­ for the shadows and a bright blue for the highlights. Reduce the Opacity to 20% too.

the background detalization

Step 2

Let’s create a pattern brush for the decoration of the shawl. Draw a shape and create a New Pattern Brush as shown below.

creating of the pattern brush

Now choose the brush and draw lines to decorate our shawl. Then select these lines and go to Object > Expand Appearance. Delete unnecessary elements using the Eraser Tool (Shift-E). Then move this pattern behind all the shadows by pressing Control-Shift-[. In the end, add some blue reflections to the pattern.

using the pattern brush

Step 3

Let’s add a few thin hairs to the hairstyle. First, create a New Layer over the layer “earrings_line”. This will make it look more natural. Draw some hairs on the edge of the hairstyle, and reduce the Weight of the stroke from 0.75 pt to 0.25 pt. Then select these hairs, expand and unite them. Fill the shape you’ve got with the gradient from the base lines.

adding thin hairs

Step 4

Let’s add some falling petals to the foreground to make our portrait more special and lively. Draw various sizes of petals randomly, and then add volume to them using the same steps as on the flowers. 

adding the falling petals
voluming the petals

In the end, add some shadows to the lower petals and some blue highlights to the upper. 

detalization of the petals

Step 5

Let’s take a fresh look at our work and make some edits if needed. In my case, I noticed that the shadows on the eyes and neck were too light. So I drew some shapes with the dark blue color, 10% Opacity and Overlay blending mode until I got the desired result.

correction of the face shadows

Great Job! We’re Done!

Our portrait for the Day of the Dead is ready! It was a complicated process, but I hope the final result meets your expectations. Thank you for creating with me! 

the final portrait
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